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Buck the Bull

Friday, March 31, 2006

One of the things I love about running a bluebird trail is that it gives me an excuse to drive down Stanleyville Road a lot. Stanleyville Road has a lot going for it. It's beautiful and relatively unspoiled. There is a colony of red-headed woodpeckers in mature oak-hickory forest on the Warren Boys' land. I heard one call yesterday as I was out watching the cowboys run their cattle. These spectacular birds are vanishingly rare around here and disappearing fast. We treasure our local red-headed woodpeckers and bring lots of people out Stanleyville Road to see them.
We've put five new bluebird boxes up on the Warren land, just in time for the new season. Overnight, bluebirds started a nest in one of them!
I was out looking at the new boxes and was delighted to see Buck the Bull, who, thanks to my NPR commentary, is quite a famous guy. He's an exceptionally nice guy, too, and he licked my hand. Being a bull, he performed flehmen (a Dutch word for that weird face animals make when they're assessing pheromones).
I guess he decided I wasn't all that interesting, because then he let me scratch his forehead.
Buck is 9, going on 10 now, which is old for an Angus bull, but he's still throwing calves. Jeff and Jay like him because he's so gentle. I like him because of what he did a few years ago. For those of you who haven't got audio capability, here's the transcript of my commentary, which aired on All Things Considered on November 2, 2005:

The Sentient Bull
On the country road that I take into town, there’s a beautiful pasture, dotted with multi-colored cattle. In the middle lies Buck, an enormous Angus bull with curly hair on his forehead. Lying in the green grass, he’s a big black rhombus, chewing his cud peacefully.
I always stop, roll down my window, and speak to Buck. He’ll roll an eye my way, and sometimes even get up and shamble a few steps toward me. I’ve got a soft spot for him.
A few years ago, Buck’s owner, an elderly farmer who kept his fences clean and pastures lush, was out feeding the herd when he suffered a massive coronary, and dropped in his tracks. The gate was open, and he lay where he fell, in the middle of the road. A passing motorist saw Buck standing over Dale’s body, and feared the worst. Ambulances arrived, and the bull, assumed to be the killer, was driven back into the pasture.
The paramedics worked on Dale there in the road, but it was no use. He’d died with his boots on, and everyone agreed that going that way beat any number of other scenarios.
As the ambulance pulled away, someone went to collect the bucket Dale had been using to give Buck his daily ration of grain. Buck was still standing, watching, and his grain was untouched.
Those of us who enjoy a nice Angus steak now and then would probably rather not know why Buck did what he did that day. That he may have been standing over Dale to protect him. That he may have understood what was happening. We may not wish for cattle to know so much, but they know. Theirs is a life that is all about death.
As jobs for cattle go, Buck has a good one. He’s a herd sire with twenty sleek wives, and a crop of frolicsome calves each spring. Now, Dale’s nephews are the ones who scratch his forehead and bring him treats. And, three mornings a week, there’s a lady who stops and talks to him. But his friend Dale won’t be coming back. That much, Buck knows.

Color from the Conservatory

Part of my Cattleya loot from the orchid show! Shot during a rare sunny moment.

It's just relentlessly cold and dreary here. They say it will warm up by Friday. I thought you could use some color, because I sure can. During the orchid show last weekend, Cindy, Shila and I wandered through Franklin Park Conservatory's beautiful exhibits. Every year, the Conservatory raises butterflies and releases them in the rainforest exhibit area. They float through, feeding on flowers and fruit, and people reach out to them as they pass, like they'd reach out to the Queen, just hoping to make contact. I found it so touching to watch. For some reason it doesn't occur to me to hold my hand out to a butterfly going by--I just let it pass. But everyone else tried to touch them. It was very sweet.There's a big koi pond with some real lunkers in it. My favorite is Lemon Boy. The glass spheres by the amazing artist Dale Chihulhy set them off so beautifully. FPC has a knack for pairing the work of artists with the art of horticulture and animal husbandry. I love this place. You never know what sculpture or artwork might be peeking out of the vegetation!We watched the koi picking up coins from the bottom of the pool, sucking them, and then spitting them back out. It's something to do. They doubtless get pretty bored cruising the same figure eight all day long.

Back at the orchid exhibits, some Paphiopedalums (ZOWIE!!)and Phragmipediums (both representatives of the ladyslipper tribe, but from far-flung places like Borneo)drew me back into the luscious world of orchids. Back home on my windowsill, two Paphiopedalums are sending up buds. I cannot wait!! OK, that's enough cheery positivity for anyone...

I hope you're enjoying this blog. I truly don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep it up. Blogger has been giving me fits for weeks now. About 75% of the time, I waste an hour or two just trying to get a single post up. I attempt to post the photos five and six times for each post you read. I get "Bad Response from Server" most of the time. And then I have to try again, hours later. This is an art form for me, and constantly working against Blogger is a colossal drag. It's like having all my watercolors dry into rock. I don't know what's to blame, but what should be (and once was) a pleasure is now a hassle. Life's too short, and it should be lived to the fullest. Endlessly fooling around with Blogger isn't part of my plan. If any other bloggers out there have a solution, or a hassle-free blog server, I'd love to hear about it. It's a big, beautiful world, and I love sharing it, but the hassle, I can live without.

Hateful Mary Grace and Other Characters

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Cattle are individuals. Any farmer can tell you that. I've spent time recently hanging over the fence on the Warren property, watching Jeff and Jay work with their cattle. I find it fascinating because each animal requires a different approach, based on its temperament. This is Mary Grace. Her name is usually prefaced by the word Hateful. So she's Hateful Mary Grace. Or Mary Grace You Worthless Ol' Blister. When Mary Grace has a new calf, the Warrens don't even go in the corral with her. You can see how she pins her ears back and rolls her eyes. That body language is pretty universal in the animal world. She can throw a kick like lightning.
This is beautiful gray Betty. She's boss cow of the small herd. Betty had a calf this spring who looks like a little gray mouse. What a gorgeous little thing! Wonder if she'll grow up to be nice or hateful?Jay and Jeff were assessing the cattle, trying to guess which would be the next one to drop her calf. They were making reference to "loosening up" and "bagging up" which mean, respectively, the softening of the cartilage in the pelvis just prior to delivery, and the swelling of the udder, both signs that birth is imminent. As someone who has both loosened and bagged up, twice, I can empathize with these girls. Imagine standing around in cold mud when you're about to deliver. Jay and Jeff try to make sure the cattle are in the corral by the barn so they'll have shelter nearby before they calve, especially if cold rain will be falling.

If I had time, I would probably hang over the Warrens' fence around the clock in calving time.
They showed me a cat nest in the barn, a nice deep bowl in the hay, like a rabbit nest. I'd never seen a cat nest like that. The mother left reluctantly to reveal two babies. The little gray kitten was hissing madly, trying to scare me away, while the black one hid its face. Individuals. All animals are individuals. Scientists are just now trying to establish that fact with quantifiable, reproducible studies. We're all such saps for saying our dogs or our cattle have personalities. Brilliant Chet Baker, Bossy Betty and Hateful Mary Grace are figments of our collective imagination. Better to start working with fruit flies, which nobody could argue have individual personalities. So somebody has shown that some fruit flies are more aggressive and "bossy" than others. It's a start. But those of us who live among animals know it's a lot more complex than that. News flash: Hominids aren't the only ones out there who think and feel, who chart their own individual course on the planet. And not everything can be quantified or reproduced. And that's OK with those of us who thrive on anecdotal evidence, and are content to be animal-admiring saps.

Orchid Overkill

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


I woke up early Sunday morning with my heart racing. Christmas morning doesn't make my heart race anymore. No, Christmas morning makes me lie there in the dark thinking, "Do I have everything ready? Will the kids like their presents? Did I get enough for Bill? Did I remember everybody?"
But looking forward to going to an orchid show with Shila is entirely different. It's pure hedonism. The tableau above may not raise your pulse rate, but it does mine. They're all gorgeous, they're all healthy, and they're all FOR SALE.
I've noticed an evolution of my tastes as the orchid-collecting hook sinks deeper and deeper. At first, I'd only look at the genus Phalaenopsis, because I knew I could get them to bloom and thrive on my windowsills. These display plants bordered on ridiculous. The big pink one was a plant no bigger than some of mine, but I couldn't count the blossoms on it. Phalaenopsis are great plants. But there are many degrees of success where orchids are concerned. I think I'm doing well to get nine flowers to a spike. I wonder what they feed this thing?

Beyond Phalaenopsis, the rest of the orchids were scary and mysterious to me. But slowly, I branched out, to Doritaenopsis (an intergeneric cross between Phalaenopsis and Doritis), and those did fine. Dendrobiums bloomed freely for me. So I got a couple of tiny orchids in the Cattleya alliance. (Orchid freaks group a number of genera into loose alliances based on their ancestry, and this also gives us a clue how to care for them.) I remember when I bought my first miniature from the Cattleya alliance, I asked the vendor how to care for it. "Like a Cattleya," he replied, and Shila and I looked at each other, wondering, "Well, what does that mean?" We nodded knowingly, and then scurried away to laugh at ourselves. So we hit the books and found out that a Cattleya needs more light and less water than the orchids we were more familiar with.
Potinara "Burana Beauty" is a Cattleya type, and I blame it for getting me in big trouble at the last show. For color and fragrance and exotic form, this plant really does it for me. I bought it three years ago. It had three flowers on it. The first time it rebloomed for me, it had 14 flowers. And I thought, "I can DO this!" And that's when the fever set in. The challenge lies in venturing farther afield from one's horticultural comfort zone. The reward lies in delicate, fragrant, utterly exotic blossoms and thriving plants that would seem to have no business living on your bedroom windowsill. And there's really nothing to it. You just get the light, medium, food and water right and stand back. Talk about bragging rights.
Encyclia cordigera, the orchid I fell hopelessly in love with in Guatemala, was there in the form of a prizewinning display plant, draped in blue ribbons. I was standing at one of the vendor booths, lamenting to Dave Brigner that nobody seemed to have it for sale, when he pointed just to my right. "Well, there it is!" he said. He had recognized it from its leaves and buds. This was the first orchid Dave ever grew--when he was 14. Needless to say, I snapped that baby up. When those buds open, the first thing they'll see is my smiling face.
When I was a little girl, I used haunt three of our neighbors on our suburban Richmond street. I would just show up and follow them around their houses and yards, by the hour. Dr. William Stepka was a plant pathologist with a penchant for azaleas and rhododendrons. Mrs. Edna Hunter grew orchids in two little greenhouses in her backyard. And Dick and JoAnn Cook grew orchids on a sunporch. Of the four horticultural mentors, only Mrs. Hunter is still alive. They were all so kind to me, the plant-obsessed Dennis the Menace, the thing that wouldn't leave. I wish they could all know what a gift they gave me, by letting me follow them around and ask them endless questions. It seems to me that no kindness extended to a child is ever wasted. It took years for me to build up the courage to grow orchids, but I realize that all the while I was shadowing my neighbors, I was soaking in the experience that would lead me to one day try it myself. Thank you, Bill, Edna, Dick and JoAnn.

Third Class All the Way

Monday, March 27, 2006

A dusky salamander, lovely little beast.
I had a wonderful adventure with my new friend Mike Austin last week. Mike is a herpetologist who works for the Ohio Department of Transportation. We met at a wildlife workshop last summer, where we were both giving presentations for the public. Only problem: No public showed up. So the presenters wound up yakking and networking happily, and my acquaintance with Mike "took." I've been sending him photos and records of herps found on our place. Surprisingly little is known about the herpetofauna of Washington County. For instance, I've found rough green snake and hognose snake on our place, and those turn out to be significant records for the county. It's nice to add little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle when you can.
As part of his work, Mike is interested in getting a conservation easement on one or both of the streams on our 80-acre property--almost as interested as we are. In order to qualify for an easement, the stream in question must be Class 3. A Class 3 stream holds water year-round. The indicator species for a year-round stream is the two-lined salamander. This animal has a larval stage that is aquatic, with gills, and takes two years or more to develop, so it won't survive in a stream that dries up in midsummer.
Mike and I figured we'd do the easy stream first--the big one with pools of water that stay year-round, the one that's been featured in my blog several times over the winter, with the fabulous ice caves. So we started flipping rocks at the headwaters. We were still flipping rocks when we ran out of stream, and in the entire length of it, we found only one dusky salamander. That's a nice little salamander, but it has a gilled larva for only 7 to 10 months, so it can survive in streams that dry up for part of the year. Hence, it's not an indicator of a permanent stream as is the two-lined salamander. Hmm. Very strange. In fact, we were puzzled by the dearth of vertebrates in this likely-looking stream overall. We wondered if it were too cold for them to be active.
So we moved on, and hit the Loop trail, and headed down into the Chute. We started flipping rocks right away, and the difference in the two streams was stunning. We found some lovely duskies and crayfish, but we weren't really expecting two-lined salamanders, since I was pretty sure the stream dried up in droughty summers. A stone's throw from our property line, I gazed down into the water and found this lovely adult two-lined salamander lazing by a rock. It was like finding a gold nugget. "Well, here he is!" I said to Mike. We would find two more on our land, in our little stream, one a huge adult that disappeared down a secret tunnel when we lifted the rock.This is where we found the first two-lined salamander.Mike's happy because we've been looking for almost three hours.
Our focus shifted immediately from the big, sexy stream to the little piddly one, because that's where the creatures were. I was delighted that our humble stream proved to have adequate habitat for two-lined salamanders. But I'm puzzled and concerned about the dearth of life in the other stream, whose headwaters are on our land. I suspect some event has caused a local extinction of the salamander population, and I'm trying to figure out what that could be. I'm suspicious of an old oil well near the streambed; perhaps oil and brine are leaching into the stream. But we didn't find anything above the well, is a mystery for now.
Mike and I are moving forward with the conservation easement, which is rather modest, protecting only a 30 to 50-foot corridor on either side of the little stream. But it's a start. Somehow, we hope to formalize protection of this entire precious piece of land by the time we are ready to pass it along to Liam and Phoebe. And I hope to have a whole lot more land under protection by then, too. I'm not the lottery-playing type; I want to earn this land. It sustains me and feeds my soul, and it's the inspirational source of everything I write or draw.

Bluebird Box Afternoon

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Boston anymore.

I was doing a million things around the house today when the phone rang. It was Jeff Warren, a neighbor who has been putting up bluebird boxes for years along his pastures and haymeadows. Not long after we moved here, I got nosy about who was doing this, and put a note and one of my bluebird booklets (Enjoying Bluebirds More) in one of his boxes, along with my phone number. We struck up a friendship. Little did Jeff know at first that I was plotting a coup. My plan was to eventually replace Jeff's boxes, which were mounted on fenceposts and thus vulnerable to raccoon and snake predation, with Gilbertson PVC boxes, mounted on conduit and baffled against climbing predators. It took me a few years to work up to it, not from any reluctance on his part, but from inertia on mine. Monitoring Jeff's boxes last summer finally lit a fire under me. I wanted to see what was actually happening in those unprotected boxes.
Now, last season was brutal for bluebirds, baffled or not. April and May were absolutely frigid. We had a major snowstorm--6"--on April 24, when all the boxes were full of naked baby bluebirds. Of 92 eggs laid in my baffled boxes, 52 resulted in fledged bluebirds--a 56% success rate. Which stinks, but nobody can control the weather. In the Warren boxes, 46 eggs laid resulted in 15 fledged bluebirds. And five of those fledglings were fostered in from my trail. So the unbaffled boxes had a 32% success rate (closer to 21% if you don't count the babies I brought in). It was clear that something major had to give. Their well-kept pastureland and hayfield is terrific for bluebirds, and we need to boost that fledging rate.
So I went to the plumbing supply store and bought a bunch of 1/2" iron rebar, 1/2" aluminum conduit, hose clamps, 2' lengths of 7" stovepipe, caps for said stovepipe, and a punch to make a hole in the caps. Ordered a case of PVC bluebird houses from my genius friend Steve Gilbertson in Minnesota. And I made a dozen box and baffled mount setups.
So when the Warren boys called today, I was ready for 'em. There were five box setups ready to replace the fencepost mounted boxes. Eventually, I want to have boxes all along their road, but there's time for that. I have this vision of checking bluebird boxes all the way into town. It's insane, with all the stuff I've got to take care of, but there's so much good habitat, and with the right predator baffles and timely monitoring, you can really crank the baby bluebirds out.
Even with the chilly weather lately, the bluebirds are nesting. We've been traveling so much lately that I'm grateful it's been cold, holding them back a bit--I just haven't had time to throw the box setups together and get the replacement boxes up. There's a nest already started out by our mailbox, and a full nest by the garden. That garden box needed to be replaced, as the coons got over its baffle last summer. So I just put the bluebird nest in a new Gilwood box with a bigger baffle, in the same place. I think she'll accept it and appreciate the upgrade to first class. Bluebirds aren't dumb, and ours have figured out that we do a lot of things to help them out.
When Jeff and brother Jay rolled up, they cut such a figure in their Carhartts that I had to take a picture of them.
Jeff couldn't resist showing me his Bubba special cell phone,with its scrolling message, "Stars and Bars Forever." There's something about those Warren boys (everybody around here calls them the Warren boys) that makes me laugh. They are so cool. From the amount of attention they were paying to Chet Baker, it occurred to me that, as occasional readers of this blog, they were probably here as much to hang out with our famous pooch as for my fancy bluebird box setups. So we made a formal portrait.
Baker thought the Warren boys were just keen, and he wanted very much to ride along with them and help put up bluebird boxes, and maybe round up a few calves for them. So he jumped in Jeff's truck, which prompted Jeff to yell, "Get out of that truck! You'll get all dirty!"
I was mighty glad the Warrens were going to take down their old boxes and put up new ones, because I have some boxes of my own to replace. And I know that the minute the weather warms up, the bluebirds are going to be stuffing grass in them as fast as they can. So for the rest of the afternoon, I wanked away at the baffle caps with my punch and hammer and vise grips. Blood blister city. The baffle rests on a little hose clamp secured to the conduit. You just slip it down over the top of the conduit until it hits the hose clamp. Supported like that, it wobbles when anything, including a raccoon or one of our Boone and Crockett 5' black rat snakes, tries to climb it.
You've got to get down and secure the conduit to its iron rebar support, or the pipe will swivel in the wind. I'm screwing things down tight.
I've got three more to replace before it warms up. I'll do that tomorrow, on my grocery run. I can't wait to start counting bluebird eggs. I'm trying not to think about last April, when for two whole days I had to go box to box, taking the nests and chilled babies out, putting them in a little insulated cooler with a hot water bottle, waiting until they were warm enough to gape for food, feeding them with tweezers, and then replacing them in their boxes. I pulled them all through the subfreezing temperatures that way. Four times a day, each box... But it is not an experience I hope to repeat this spring, because it was literally all I did for those two freezing cold days. Let's hope it warms up and stays that way. The brown thrasher is due tomorrow, and I've got to get my peas and lettuce planted!
I should not be wearing a hat and parka on March 26.

Cheap Fun in Whipple

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Warning: Smash-faced dog pictures. Those of you who are allergic to smash-faced dogs, you go forewarned.
Last Christmas season, there was a Boston terrier on the cover of the Land's End catalogue. It was wearing fake antlers, and it was extremely cute. We got several copies of that cover in the mail from people who knew we'd love it. The first thing I noticed about the dog, though, was that somebody had given it cute lips.
Cute lips are sort of a Boston thing. I'm sure boxers and bulldogs get them too. When they're puppies, they get them all the time, but when they get older and their jowls start to hang down over their lips, they sometimes need an assist. In this picture, Liam is gently rolling Chet's lower lip out for that patented Boston pout.
It's probably overkill, because Boston terriers are pretty darn cute to start with. Here's the result:Awwww. Cute lips.

And now, Bill, Phoebe and Liam with human cute lips. Photo by Chet Baker.Thus do we amuse ourselves on cold spring nights.

I am just home from the orchid show in Columbus, having left at 8 this morning. Shila and I went completely nuts. Cindy the Forester hung out with us but did not abandon herself to the bacchanale of spending as we did. She was a model of restraint. We saw Dave Brigner and he gave me a scarf he had knitted that looks just like sparrow feathers. The kitchen table is now full of orchids, mostly of the cattleya alliance. I'm too tired even to put them in the windowsills. It was a perfect day. More anon. I'm going to gloat, then to bed.

Corrupting Our Youth

Friday, March 24, 2006


It's Relative Music Week at Salem-Liberty Elementary. In this rare event, relatives of students come in to play music for the kids, and tell them what music has meant in their lives. Kind of a no-brainer for me and Bill. We told Phoebe's fourth-grade class that music was the spark that really got us together. Bill called me and asked me to paint redpolls for the cover of Bird Watcher's Digest 'way back in 1990. I demurred, because I hadn't seen redpolls for awhile and just didn't want to. He called back about 15 minutes later and talked me into it. In the course of "checking on the progress of the painting," he called a lot. And it came out in our conversations that we were both in bands. My antennae hove skyward, and so did his. I'd never dated anyone who wasn't a musician. There's something special, something extra, about musicians that I can't resist.
So we arrived at the school at exactly 1:45 pm, to find an empty music classroom and a rather puzzled Mr. Stillings. It seems I had screwed up the time we were supposed to be there. It was, or had been, 11:15. Whoops. We dithered for a couple of minutes and then decided to ask Phoebe's teacher if we might play for the class, anyway. She readily accepted our offer, and we were on.
Whut fun. I think the highlight of our half-hour was leading the kids in singing "Wishbone" by Stampfel and Weber. There was something delicious about writing the lyrics on the blackboard for the kids to sing.

Oh, a little wishbone
I make a wish
For a potato

I make a wish
For a potato

Fixin' up tortillas is so much fun
When you got a bowl of beans

So much fun
Got a bowl of beans

When we make spaghetti everybody gathers round
And we eat it by the pound

They all gather round
Eat it by the pound

See the pile of dishes over there
They fill me with despair

Dishes over there
Fill me with despair

It was, unfortunately, necessary to delete my favorite verse, which goes

We fill up our guts and we turn it into sh-t
And then we get rid of it

We turn it into sh-t
We get rid of it

What are you gonna do? You can't have 20 kids yelling the S word, however much you might want to.
Phoebe's class is cool. They get all the jokes. By the end of the half-hour they were swaying in their seats holding up pretend lighters.

The Irish traditional stuff always goes over well. Pennywhistles: Kids, rats; everybody loves 'em.

All photos in this entry are by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

I am SOOO excited. First thing in the morning, Shila, Cindy the Forester and I are going to an orchid show in Columbus where there will be EIGHT Midwestern orchid vendors. I hope they are ready to accept my cash. And we'll get to see Dave Brigner, my dear friend at the Franklin Park Conservatory. I worked all week to earn this treat. Did my taxes and cleaned the house, even washed the floors. House is sparkling and ready for more exotica. Life is very good.

Turkey Day, Redefined

Thursday, March 23, 2006


March 23, and there were 23 turkeys in the backyard at sunrise. They come first thing in the morning, before I've gotten my shoes on to replenish their corn. I can almost hear the hens saying, "Rats. She's not up yet." The smart little hens have already figured out to make a second trip in late morning, when they're sure I'll have strewn more corn. The gobblers rarely eat anything; they're too focused on impressing the hens and each other. Today, 18 hens filed out and began to peck around, and five gobblers hurried out all together like a barbershop group, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get out of the woods and start strutting. Turkeys seem to appreciate close-mown lawns. When it rains, they make a point of cutting through the yard and using our mown paths, because, I think, they hate brushing against wet vegetation. And of course, the visibility afforded by a mown lawn is ideal for their purposes in breeding season.
Chet had just finished his morning constitutional and was asking to come back in as the turkeys arrived. He raced down to the lower patio window to see if they were out there and his face was a study when he spotted them. If a dog could cuss, Chet would have turned the air blue. He was reduced to watching them, trembling with the pent-up desire to charge and send them all flapping off. Bless him, though, he doesn't bark or jump--just sits perfectly still and trembles. The turkeys see him there in the window, and calmly go about their business. I'm impressed with the restraint shown by both parties! When they were done eating and had ambled off, I let him out, and he tore out and chased phantasmagorical turkeys in circles. Who says dogs can't pretend?
23 turkeys. That's a lot of turkeys, a lot of corn. Last night I took off on the Loop at 6:15, reveling in the lengthening days that let me stay out until after 7. Even in the gloaming I could see vast areas of forest litter that had been scraped aside by turkey feet. Their impact on the woodlands is not trivial. I heard three woodcocks, though it was in the 30's. Chet and I put one up on the way down into the Chute. It was magic to hear that twitter so close, from invisible wings. I wondered if woodcocks benefit from the big cleared areas that turkeys create. It might just be easier to find earthworms if you don't have to sort through leaf litter.
This morning, when we came back from walking the kids out to the bus, "our" male tree swallow was in his usual spot on the phone wire by the house. There's been a male tree swallow in that precise spot for 9 nesting seasons. I don't know if it's the same bird, but I like to think it is. He comes back very early in spring, and you can walk right up underneath him and talk to him, and he doesn't fly off. He takes white goose feathers right out of our fingers to line his nest. He knows us, and we know him, and we're so glad to be his landlords. Welcome, swallow. Your nest box is clean and waiting for you.

Summer is Icumen In

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Oh, yeah, it's coming, even though it's in the 20's at night, even though we woke up to an inch of snow this morning. School had a two-hour delay, and we walked slowly out to the mailbox, scaring a big flock of crows out of the enormous oak that guards our driveway. Chet thought for a moment he could take wing and join them, and he bounded through the meadow, leaping and twisting in his attempt to become airborne.

We were early, and we had time to romp around with Chet before the bus came. How we love this giant oak.

Some sure signs of spring on Indigo Hill include

farm daffodils abloom. We salvaged these from the side of the Rt. 77 interchange at Marietta. They still come up on land that used to belong to Bill's great uncle and grandmother, and is now part of a cloverleaf and Kroger complex. Sigh. Think how many decades these daffodils have been blooming, how many more decades they will come up. And now they come up on our farm, which is as it should be.

Heliotrope turning dark purple. When I bring my heliotrope into the greenhouse in October, it turns pale purple. It doesn't turn dark again until the sun gains intensity in March. It's turning dark!

Turkeys courting. I think there were 19 in this group. I love the electric blue and red of the gobblers' heads when they're aroused.

And a subtle but sure one: A pair of white-breasted nuthatches feeding side by side. Nuthatches are companionable little things, but they have to be in love to be this close.

Zick, buried in receipts and pay stubs. It's tax time. I will not bore you with a picture of THAT. But I am a little bit proud of myself for finally pulling the trigger on my taxes today. The carrot I held out for myself, to make myself tackle it, was finally finding out how much I spent on a certain Boston terrier in his first year with us. All I can say is o h m y g o o d n e s s. Certain things must remain confidential. But I am wondering how on earth those dogs lazing around on Whipple's shanty porches manage to survive without $600 worth of veterinary care.
Maybe there's something going on here I need to look into.

Laughing through Tikal

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Atop a temple at Tikal. Julie, Bill, Hector and Marco. Photo by some hapless tourist recruit.

As the first flakes of the snowstorm that clobbered Birdchick in Nebraska float down, I am turning away from the darkening skies and dreaming of orchids in Guatemala, of friends in Guatemala. Marco Centeno is a professor of ornithology at a university in Guatemala City, and Hector Castaneda is a teacher of orchidology and birding tour leader. Both are the finest kind, gentle and sweet and funny as all get out. When we met at the airport to travel to Tikal, we started laughing at the ticket counter and laughed pretty much the whole time we were together. Many of the jokes centered around the fact that Marco and Bill are twice the size of Hector and me. And that Bill and I thought we might want to adopt a Guatemalan child. I want one who's fluent in English, has a great sense of humor, and teaches orchidology. We found one who is very cute, and available, but he smokes, so I am going to try to find another.

Whenever I'm in the tropics, I go on sensory overdrive--the sights and smells and forms are all so different--so much bigger and brighter--than they are back home. I especially like the plus-sized flowers and leaves. The sheaths from banana flowers make fabulous fake lips. Here, Bill, bite this.

There are many flower parts that will fit over your nose and ears, as well. Finding them on the forest trails fills the moments when you're not chasing some weird bird call. Just make sure there's not a scorpion or soldier ant in them before applying.

As an orchid freak, it was pure joy for me to walk through Tikal's humid forest with Hector. "What's that, Hector?" And he'd give me the genus and species and a short course on its natural history and distribution.
Aww, he's soo cute. Maybe I'll reconsider. Hold on Hector, we're coming back to get you.

Here, Hector's holding Oeceoclades maculata, a very unusual terrestrial orchid native to Nigeria. It's strange, because it lives in soil (rather than as an epiphyte, on tree branches), has water-storing pseudobulbs (typical of an epiphyte) and velamin-coated roots (again, an epiphyte characteristic). This critter has all its bases covered, and it is an aggressive invader of humid forest floor. It was a surprise to me to see an orchid as a noxious pest! Hector says it displaces native terrestrial orchids. Amazing. We saw other noxious exotics, including lantana and our own beloved impatiens. Coffee growers hate impatiens because they sap nutrients from the soil. Such things I learned traveling with Hector and Marco.
Laughing again. Hard to catch Hector not laughing.

Orchids in the wild are so happy. They make the lovely things on our windowsills look like little caged canaries. This Oncidium was a living fountain of brilliant yellow flowers.
I have one languishing at home that has yet to bloom. It will, I know, but when I see what these plants are really capable of, I get the same feeling I do when I see wild macaws and parrots--guilt.
Not guilty enough to stop me from taking a road trip to the orchid show at the Franklin Park Conservatory this weekend, however. I hear they may have Encyclia cordigera there, and I aim to get one languishing on my windowsill by Saturday! Captive-propagated, of course...
this perfect creature was growing on a tree at a restaurant by the highway. I swooned. It smelled like muguet in Paradise.
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